Mel Zajac Jr International; More than just a swim meet

The Mel Zajac Jr International will go from May 24th-26th at the University of British Columbia Aquatic Centre and will be the 50th year that the meet will be held in Vancouver, BC.

This competition is much more than just a swim meet, for two big reasons. The first being the competition was one of the catalysts in developing one of the most successful teams in Canadian swimming’s history.

Legendary coach Howard Firby started the Canadian Dolphins Swim Club in 1956 when he became frustrated with the laid back philosophy of many of the countries swimming programs. He had the desire to cultivate a serious environment that would develop swimmers that would represent Canada successfully on the international stage.

Firby felt that if his swimmers were going to beat the best they had to race the best more often, so why not bring the elite to Vancouver, hence the creation of the Canada Cup in 1963, which would eventually be renamed the Mel Zajac Jr. International.

Firby was right and the meet helped develop the Canadian Dolphins into a juggernaut in Canadian swimming.

Firby has been inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

The following is an excerpt from the ISHOF:

As a swimmer’s coach, his record is best illustrated by the names and achievements of the people and the teams he has coached. His twelve World Record holders include superstars Mary Stewart and Elaine Tanner, who made believers of those south of the Canadian border with impressive double wins at the U.S. Nationals.

He started a swim club–The Canadian Dolphins–in Vancouver, B.C., which set team records the equal of Mission Viejo and Santa Clara. Firby swimmers set over 300 Canadian senior records, won more than 100 Canadian championships and 10 International Games gold medals.

Although his swimmers left their mark in the record books his greatest contribution to the swimming world may have been his teaching methods and his willingness to share them with other coaches.

Firby was a formally trained artist and it was his skills as an artist that gave him a unique ability to break down and teach technique to his athletes and eventually other coaches.

Firby wrote what is still considered to be a classic book on the technical elements of swimming, Firby on Swimming. It was published in 1975 with only 2500 copies printed.

If you are lucky enough to find a copy today it sells for anywhere between $200-$400 CDN.

The second reason that the Mel Zajac Jr International is more than just a meet is because of it’s name sake. Thirteen years ago Mel Zajac Sr. decided to sponsor the meet in the memory of his sons Mel and Marty who died only eight months apart in 1986-87.

“My boys passed away and I wanted to name something after them,” said Mel Zajac Sr. “It’s got much larger once we got involved.”

“I’m doing some good for the kids. I’m very proud of the fact there are some great swimmers who came to this meet, became world champions.”

The following description of the two brothers is taken from the Zajac Ranch website:

Mel Jr. loved to do everything. With a quiet and yet competitive nature Mel Jr. wanted to be the best at whatever he did. This thoughtful, determined young man was also a character and practical joker to those that knew him and loved him.

Mel Jr.’s accomplishments were many: he was a member of Canada’s National swim team and earned the National Championship title for the 200 metre breaststroke. In 1973, he competed in the World Aquatic Games and was a three-time gold medallist in the Canada Games. Two years later he competed in the Pan Am Games in Mexico City, and then in 1976 at the Olympics in Montreal.

Mel Jr. studied at the University of Florida and Arizona State University on an athletic and academic scholarship. In the spirit of trying almost anything, he enjoyed cycling, running, river rafting, kayaking, skydiving, hang-gliding, and even earned his commercial pilot’s license.

Marty managed to pursue just as many of his own worthwhile activities. This well liked and friendly young man became involved in community affairs, and devoted much of his free time to the support of causes involving children, especially those in underprivileged circumstances.

Like his brother, Mel Jr., Marty also attended Arizona State University on an academic scholarship.

He became an avid skier and golfer, and participated in many of the same sports activities as his brother. He especially enjoyed skiing with his family, more often than not leaving his dad and sisters struggling to keep up. Melting snow never stopped Marty. He would simply trade the skis for a set of golf clubs, again giving Dad a “run for his money.”

Everywhere Marty went he was a favourite — full of fun and a desire to live life to the fullest.

Mel Jr. died in a kayaking accident on the Chilliwack River in 1986. Less than a year later Marty died while heli-skiing.

It is one thing to find a way to have a swim meet dedicated to your sons’ memory, it is another to honour them by creating a foundation that supports and provides camps for children with chronic, life-threatening and/or debilitating conditions.

Last year nearly 400 campers visited the Zajac Ranch and took part in many different activities, which include; high and low ropes courses, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing, orienteering, climbing and archery.

You can visit the Zajac Ranch website here to learn more about this amazing initiative and find out how you can help.

Yes this meet has hosted many of the best swimmers in the world, yes it will be exciting to see Ryan Lochte, Elizabeth Beisel and many of Canada’s best race this weekend, but when it comes down to it this competition is much more than just a swim meet.


In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

Who is that breaststroke swimmer in picture? There are so many terrible things in his style I cannot even begin to enumerate them.

Reply to  PsychoDad
8 years ago

Please elaborate!

Reply to  SprintDude9000
8 years ago

Where to begin?

1. At no point in breaststroke should your head be facing down while your elbows are bent more than 90 degrees (IMO any time > 0 degrees – only look down when streamlining).

2. He looks so, how to say, “not relaxed”, his shoulders are “working overtime” – this swimmer cannot possible be a good IMer either.

3. Any no point in breaststroke should your elbow be below hands.

Very poor technique.

Kevin Murphy
Reply to  PsychoDad
8 years ago

Your chosen screen name says it all. You must be, or at least believe yourself to be, a high-quality, professional swim stroke “expert”.
After 34 years of “professional” swim coaching, I have seen many different variations of fine, and fast, breastroke swimming. One stroke style does not fit all.
I am sure that with your “expert” eye, you could become a great swim coach. Perhaps after you conclude your calling as “psychodad” you could improve the competitive stroke technique for each swimmer “pictured” on this web-site.

Reply to  Kevin Murphy
8 years ago

Some very good ideas for my future, Kevin. I will consider them. Sincerely yours.

Reply to  PsychoDad
8 years ago

I disagree with your first point – having a low head position can flatten out the body position substantially thus greatly improving streamlining. I predict that over the next decade we will see a lot more athletes doing something similar (check out this video of a former NAG record holder in the 200m breaststroke ( and ask yourself if his overall body position would be anywhere near as flat if his head was held at a more ‘traditional breaststroke’ angle)

Tight shoulders are bad, but having seen a film of this guy swimming on youtube I don’t think that they are. You’re probably misinterpreting the tightness of his shoulders due to his… Read more »

Reply to  SprintDude9000
8 years ago

Oh, come on! Watch his 2012 Trials 200 breast video on youtube – I just went to see it after your latest reply. His technique is terrible., Check out how far his elbows are behind his shoulders on pull, among other things. I have never seen worse technique at that level. He bobs his head like 10 year olds.

Reply to  PsychoDad
8 years ago

I am pretty sure that is a swimmer by the name of Andrew Poznikoff. He represented Canada at the past short course world championships.

Reply to  Nick
8 years ago

You’re correct, it is him.

8 years ago

Great background article on what was one of my favorite swim meets as a kid. I’ll never forget training sessions with Grant Hackett just as he was storming the international stage, warming up next to Jenny Thompson, and getting to warm down in the outdoor tank as it was the first warm-weather meet of the year.

Mike Ball
8 years ago

Mel & Marty both passed in freak accidents. Mel was an expert white water kayaker and he drowned on the relatively tame Chilliwack River. Marty – an expert skier – died less than a year later in an avalanche heli-skiing. Terrible, terrible tragedies both of them. And they were both young men.

Mr. & Mrs. Zajac are two of the very finest people you will ever meet and “The Zajac” is wonderful tribute to two lives cut far too short. It is also a testament to one family’s strength and character.